Social ruin

2009 February 1
by Stace

Okay, what with needing some redemption from all that trashy TV I watched while I was home, I recently finished listening to “Vanity Fair,” by William Thackery.

Maybe it’s just the authors I happen to pick, but it certainly does seem that the 19th century had quite the fascination with the “ruined” woman. They’re all over Dickens’ books, and Thomas Hardy’s and George Eliot’s, and there’s Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Chopin’s “The Awakening,” and so on and so forth. There’s also plenty of novels on this theme in the early part of the 20th century (Edith Wharton had a serious love of this theme).

Typically, what gets these women into trouble in the first place is their desire to better themselves, socially and monetarily, by snagging a wealthy man. And my, my, my, do they get punished for wanting to leave the realm in which they were born. I’ve gotten to the point that when I read about some woman determined to leap a couple of social rungs, I figure they’ll be destitute or dead by the end of the novel.

Chopin whacked her heroine in “The Awakening,” by having her commit suicide, and the reviewers got all up in arms and said the book was immoral because the fallen woman was allowed to kill herself. Just being dead wasn’t enough punishment. Tough crowd, them folks.

So when “Vanity Fair” started with a pair of young women, one poor and wily, the other one wealthy and kind, I figured I knew where we were headed. It didn’t actually resolve itself as completely as I foresaw, surprising me to a degree. Still, there’s the fallen woman business and the whole British thing of how you can’t escape your breeding.

In some respects, it reminded me of Balzac’s “Cousin Bette,” also from the 19th century. Balzac’s climbers were also smart and wily, while his social elite were insipid and helpless. He pretty much heaps punishment of everyone’s heads, so he doesn’t play favorites.

All that aside, reading “Vanity Fair” got me to wondering about social ruin for women. Back in the day, it didn’t take much. Being caught alone in a room with a man, other than a family member, would pretty much take care of it. Social ruin meant not being accepted by polite society, and that would have left you at the mercy of your family, who may or may not have thrown you into the streets. Even if they kept you, they’d likely shuttle you off to a little cottage in the country with some maiden, parsimonious, scripture-spouting aunt, where you’d live the rest of your outcast days in misery.

But what about today? What does it take to be socially ruined in our world today? Is there even such a thing anymore? And I’m not talking about people like fundamentalists, evangelicals, or their ilk. Clearly, social ruin is still alive and well with them (unwed mothers, homosexuals, inter-racial marriage, etc.).

I’m talking about rational human beings, like you and I, living in a modern world. And by social ruin, I mean being disowned by your family, left with no support, and shunned by everyone you ever knew, basically treated like a pariah. Serious business.

Obviously, sexual scandal won’t ruin you today. If it did, most of the actresses in Hollywood would be in the unemployment line and we wouldn’t be plagued with the likes of Paris Hilton.

Also, we don’t have any problem with social climbing, if that’s what you’re into. In fact, I think a lot of people are seriously into the social climbing.

Something that led to social ruin back in the day was the loss of all your money. I don’t know about where you all are from, but where I come from, bankruptcy doesn’t mean much. Oh, people will gossip about it, but they won’t cut you in public and refuse to see you again. It certainly does not make for social ruin.

So, if sex, the desire to rise above your class of birth, and bankruptcy doesn’t ruin you socially in today’s world, what the hell can?

One thing I could think of was committing a crime. It can’t be a white-collar crime, since no one seems to get too worked up over that sort of thing (why that is, I have no idea). I would think, though, that committing a big crime like robbery, rape, child abuse, murder, etc., would socially ruin you (though perhaps not among those on a certain level of the social pyramid, but then, that’s been true throughout time).

Another one is drug addiction. While this is a forgivable offense for celebrities, it often is not for everyone else.

Beyond big crimes and drug addiction, I can’t think of anything else. Hedon thought of polygamy (been watching “Big Love”) and mental illness (among some people). It’s certainly not a bad thing that the “fallen woman” has ceased to be a focus of our society. I am surprised to discover, however, how difficult it must be these days to get yourself socially ostracized. I must be missing something here. It’s true that I don’t get out much. Any ideas?

In the meanwhile, I’ve moved on in my audiobooks. I’m having some light fun at the moment with “The Eyre Affair,” by Jasper Fforde. It’s not classic literature, but it is a cute book, kind of like a grab bag of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical, paranormal, suspense, detective fiction. I know, sounds like something of a mess, and yet so far, it’s pretty good. I’m at the part where I think the bad guy is getting ready to kidnap Jane Eyre out of the pages of the novel of the same name, and hold her hostage for a mighty ransom. What fun.

And social ruin is nowhere to be seen on the horizon for the plucky heroine.

7 Responses
  1. 2009 February 1

    Very interesting post… You got me thinking.

    Child rape or murder is apparently a social no-no even in prison. I have heard that once you do that, you are a social outcast even there. The lowest of the low. Particularly heinous crimes against your own sex (Gacy, Dahmer) is also bad. Dahmer was actually killed in prison.

    But of the non-deadly or life-maiming things that can happen, I can think of only one that might turn a family against you. Thank God (or whoever) that with education, this is becoming less and less a social ruin. It’s coming out of the closet – especially for men. My youngest brother is gay and he was terribly afraid to admit it to the family. He’d heard terrible stories from some of his friends. Luckily for him, we are an enlightened bunch. There were no recriminations, just hugs. And one “Are you sure?” from my dad. I wish it could be like that for everyone. There’s a movie on Lifetime right now called “Prayers for Bobby”, which is about a family (especially Mom) who rejects her son when he tells her he’s gay. He commits suicide and she apparently redeems herself by starting an educational crusade. I haven’t watched it yet, but I DVR’d it. I’m just not sure I want to see it.

  2. 2009 February 1

    Hmmm. this post made me think. On the one hand I think, you’re right, we pretty much tolerate anything nowadays and forgive anything in the social tolerance sense. Acts that are worthy of public social ostracism, it’s hard to think of anything. But there are still things that our society does not tolerate, and I think one big thing is women who choose not to raise their children, voluntarily turning custody over to the child’s father or losing custody of their children to foster care or grandparents. I think it’s thought of as one of the worst things a woman can do. You truly are a fallen woman if your children are not under your care. There’s something seriously wrong with you. Whereas a man that doesn’t raise his children, well, I think you’d be hard fetched to find a person that finds this worth more than just a frown.

  3. 2009 February 1

    Oh Stace! What an excellent post!
    I have never commited what you call a ‘big’ crime. I am, however, a drug addict. Even though I celebrated 20 years clean last month my family still cringes when I bring it up. We’ve had family friend who have been literally dying from their drug addiction and I’ve been asked, \Can’t you just try to help without telling them about you?\ I always tell. There was total freedom for me in knowing I wasn’t alone with that particular problem, and I cannot imagine holding back from someone else who could have the same freesom.
    Oh, I also ‘forgot’ to have children and thought it was a damn fine idea to divorce a mean husband and end up with a nice one. There’s also the little problem about me not being interested in a career that is ‘for girls’…you know…a teacher, nurse, secretary or office assistant.
    Oops! Looks like I screwed all kinds of things up!
    Ultimately, I’ve simply ended up grateful for women who have shown me you can end up healthy, happy and wise by simply living out loud as yourself.

  4. 2009 February 1

    Stace, what a great post. Thought provoking, well considered.

    I agree that women who don’t have custody of their minor children are not welcome in “polite”
    society – whatever that is. And women who did not breed are also pretty suspect (I know I’m one of them). I know that I do not associate with women who think that shopping/consuming are the most worthwhile activities women can engage themselves in. It is doubtful that the rest of society feels the same way; and being kicked off my dance card is hardly social ostracism.

    I hear what you’re saying – once upon a time having a bastard child got you less than desirable status, though now the opposite seems true. Maybe it means that our society is becoming more tolerant. Maybe.

  5. 2009 February 1

    So, doing alittle light reading, are ya? lol

    Yeah, times have changed and a lot is not considered ‘bad’ or whatever anymore. Kinda sad. I notice that my kids are desensitized to much more that what I was when I was younger.

    And as for the social ladder? I know I’ll never be climbing it. Even with brazillions of dollars, I couldn’t make that climb. I like my real ‘peeps’, lol. Plus, it’s hard to climb ladders when all ya wear is sweats. I think you’d need like high heels and big diamonds for that climb. Not happening.

  6. 2009 February 1

    I think everyone has made good, well-reasoned points here. I would hope that tolerance breeds even more tolerance. I’ve got to say, though, that I’ve had my doubts the past eight years, where it seemed like the country was going backwards.

    I’d like to think that I’m completely tolerant of others, but it’s not true.

    For me personally, there is only one circumstance in which I can see myself socially ostracizing someone, and that is in regards to crime. I have no tolerance for cold-blooded murderers, rapists, child molesters, blackmailers, kidnappers, career thieves, etc. on the hard crime. Nada on the tolerance. Maybe this shouldn’t be the case, but the fact remains that I don’t want to have anything to do with them.

    Also, there are some groups of people who, while I might not completely cut them, I am prone to avoid them.

    Stupid people is one of those groups. Specifically, I mean those gasbag morons who shoot off their fool opinions as if they actually knew something, which they most certainly do not, and are in general just spouting off the drivel they heard on talk radio the night before. Argh, they drive me nuts. In trucking, there is a high percentage of gasbag morons. These days when I happen to find myself in contact with one, I run away as soon as possible.

    Another group of people that I avoid is the smug and self-satisfied lot. They are SO annoying. I just want to smack them upside the head and say, “Trust me, you are not as perfect as you think you are.”

    Another group is smooth-talking sales people. I shun them purely for self-protection from buying crap I don’t actually want or need. But I wouldn’t have any problem with them in a non-sales setting, as long as they aren’t gasbag morons who are smug and self-satisfied.

    Oh, and drama queens. A little of them goes a looooooong way.

    And couples who have just fallen in love. They’re cute for the first ten minutes or so, but the huggie, smoochie, lovey-uggums stuff wears thin very quickly.

    And stoned people. Also amusing for the first ten minutes, but become dreadfully boring what with taking an hour to complete a thought. Stoned people should be avoided, unless of course, you yourself are stoned, then they morph into clever geniuses.

    And teenagers. I don’t think I should have to explain myself on this one.

    And hypocrites, and fundies who want to convert me.

    Apparently, the more I think of it, I could go on and on forever. So much for tolerance. But maybe this sort of stuff is not so much about intolerance, since it’s not like I’m lobbying to have these people outlawed, or kicked out of their homes. I’m not opposed to their very existence; I just don’t want to hang out with them.

  7. 2009 February 3

    Hello there. Interesting topic.

    I think poverty causes intolerance and “social ruin” and brings on indifference toward the homeless,people needing welfare assistance, and anyone existing on a low income.


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